Remembering Jerry Tucker, Labor Leader and Educator

My friend and colleague of more than 25 years died today from pancreatic cancer. If you never had the privilege of meeting and working with Jerry Tucker, it is truly a shame. Rarely do we cross paths with someone who makes such a difference in our lives. Jerry was such a man. I first heard of Jerry in the mid-1980s. I was part of a progressive/reform caucus in UAW 422, the GM autoplant in Framingham, MA. Our caucus, the STANDUP, had, against all odds, elected a delegate to the UAW Constitutional Convention. On the first night of the convention we got a very excited phone call: “You all won’t believe it. There is an entire region here running on a exactly the same platform as ours! The leader is the Assistant Regional Director, Jerry Tucker.” We knew we needed to find out more.

Jerry started as a rank and filer and then held just about every elected office inside the UAW, except for International President : committeeman (stewards in the rest of the world), Grievance Chair, Bargaining Chair, Local President, UAW staff in Region 5 and for the International in Washington, Political Director, Assistant Regional Director and Regional Director (which made him a member of the International Executive Board).

But as impressive as those titles and duties are, that is not what made Jerry such a visionary. Long before the union movement learned that you needed to be partners (as in equals) and in coalition with the community, Jerry figured that out in the mid 1970s bruising campaign to defeat Right to Work in Missouri. Jerry led this trailblazing effort on behalf of the UAW.

But Jerry is probably most famous for his contributions in creative strategies for worker power in contract struggles and for rank and file education. No doubt Jerry’s experience as a rank and filer gave him the insight that workers knew more about the production process than management. When workplace struggle, contracts, and lockouts loomed, Jerry pulled together the rank and file and had them examine in fine detail the production process. He would ask questions like, “Where are the possible bottlenecks in production?” “What are the crucial points in the production process?” “if we are to tame management by using our intimate knowledge of how work gets done, where is the tip of the spear?” Jerry didn’t do for workers, but created space for workers to analyze and strategize about exploiting production vulnerabilities. Through this process, escalating as workers gained confidence and experience, Jerry got workers to “run the plant backwards.” Rather than striking, especially in times when scabs were prevalent and economic conditions poor, Jerry chose another strategy that asked workers to use their brains, not just their labor power. And get full pay for doing it.

Jerry’s other great contribution was in worker education. Learning from his own mentor and friend, Victor Reuther, and the experiences of Brookwood Labor College (in the late 1920s) and the very early days of Highlander Folk Center (1930s), Jerry helped train many rank and file workers. Labor education wasn’t just learning to file grievances and how to lobby. For Jerry the essence of labor education was help workers bring forward what they knew, reorganize it so that it could be part of strategic planning, and adding a dose of a world view to put everything into context. Participants in any Tucker inspired “Solidarity School” was at the same time a teacher, facilitator, and learner. There were never a dichotomy between the “experts” and the “students.” Participants were “both/and”, to use the Ella Baker phrase.

As the rest of us in the UAW learned about these activities, we wanted to be part of this. After all, we were working on the same vision of worker empowerment and ownership of our union and the production process. This was the cauldron in which the New Directions Movement, the progressive caucus within the UAW was born in 1987. Unlike many other union caucuses, the NDM just wasn’t satisfied with cleaning up the union and making it a hot bed of democracy, we wanted to rebuild the world where workers were in the driver’s seat. And that meant taking on white supremacy and patriarchy, and too often xenophobia. Jerry was forced to take the role of standard bearer in this immense, and often dangerous effort.

Even with all these accomplishments, my favorite accomplishment of Jerry’s was that he was the only white player in the local Negro Baseball Sandlot league in St. Louis. Rest in peace, shortstop and playmaker. It will be a long time until someone like you comes along again.

Elly Leary is the former co-chair of the New Directions Movement and a member of Freedom Road Socialist Organization..

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